Science teaches how to create – and stick to – good habits
Did you make a new year’s resolution? I did.
When the new year rolls around, 44 % of people in the United States typically make resolutions, according to Healthline.
Whether to improve our fitness or our mental health, eat better, or spend less time on TikTok, we’re inspired by the fresh start January brings, ready to be a better, smarter, fitter, faster version of ourselves.
And nearly half of us fail. Why? Because most of us aren’t practicing “self-directed neuroplasticity,” according to experts.
Self-directed neuroplasticity is when you intentionally rewire your brain to create positive habits. People do this primarily through active reflection.
Yes, the term is a mouthful — but it’s also a powerful, science-based method to break undesirable habits and create new, healthy ones. You can use this method to train your brain to stick with habits for the long haul.
The habit loop
Habits are actions triggered by cues, such as a time of day, an activity, or a location. They culminate in a feel-good reward that, through repetition, fuses the connection between the cue and reward firmly in the brain. By the way, have you read James Clear’s book Atomic Habits? I loved it!
You might hit a wall with a creative work or school project and crave a break from the hard mental work. You step outside for a cigarette, both relieving yourself from an uncomfortable situation and giving yourself a nicotine boost.
Over time, feeling stuck at work will start to trigger you to reach for cigarettes. Or, that relief might come from something less obviously addictive: scrolling social media.
The habit loop often happens subconsciously and can perpetuate not-so-good-for-us behavior. We can waste hours doing something that does not do any good for us – mentally and physically. But we can also use these principles of cue and reward to intentionally cultivate habits with outcomes we want.
Here’s an example of the habit loop leading to beneficial results:
You hit a wall with a project and crave a break from the hard mental work. You step outside for a walk, relieving yourself from an uncomfortable situation and getting some exercise. Or maybe you start using audio for breaks — putting on a podcast, book, or music.
Over time, feeling stuck at work will start to trigger you to go for walks or close your eyes and listen to something relaxing.
One smart option is to connect “good habits” (like exercising, meditating ) with a more immediate reward — for instance, listening to new episodes of your favorite podcast or your favorite music playlist only when you go for walks or feel less stressed out after a quick 5-minute meditation.
Instead of going cold turkey, it’s far more effective to replace or adjust small parts of the habituated action. Every small step in the correct direction counts!
If you always sit down with your glass of Scotch at 6 p.m., for instance, keep the time and the glassware, but swap out the booze for an adaptogen tea such as Tulsi with Passion Fruit or Ashwagandha. That will relax you!
It’ll make it much easier to decouple the alcohol from the habit, and then you can work on replacing this habituated action with something different.
Take a habit you already practice and add one tiny positive thing to your routine, like doing calf raises while brushing your teeth. If you take a snack break at 11 a.m. every day, why not walk around the block at the same time? Let your dog take you for a walk, and enjoy the ride!
I am already putting this knowledge to practice to exercise regularly and eat healthier. Living one day at a time is the secret sauce. Being compassionate with myself and understanding not every day is equally good.
What habit do you want to adopt? Let´s share our goals and help each other! You can inspire others with your positive change!